A Jazz Violinist Who Sings Of Black History : A Blog Supreme I didn't know who violinist John Blake Jr. was when I picked up his CD from the pile a week ago. It turns out he's getting set to premiere two new albums, and a documentary filmmaker is planning to tell his story.
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A Jazz Violinist Who Sings Of Black History

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A Jazz Violinist Who Sings Of Black History

A Jazz Violinist Who Sings Of Black History

John Blake, Jr.: there is a balm in Philadelphia. courtesy of the artist hide caption

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courtesy of the artist

John Blake, Jr.: there is a balm in Philadelphia.

courtesy of the artist

Pairing vocal groups with jazz ensembles can be a dicey proposition — these collaborations can feel either under- or overcooked. But they always seem to draw my eye, at least. Can't knock the hustle of anyone who can get a choir to work with him or her for a full album, and there are enough examples of stirring voices + jazz records — Donald Byrd/Duke Pearson, Max Roach, Eddie Gale, etc. — that new ones are usually worth a spin.

I didn't know who John Blake Jr. was when I picked up his CD from the pile a week ago, but I had heard of Afro Blue, the Howard University jazz choir — they've performed at NPR before. And I've also certainly heard of pianist Mulgrew Miller, who guests on this album. He's featured on the opening, title track of Blake's upcoming Motherless Child, floating over top of ethereal voices and a "Man-From-Tanganyika"-era-McCoy-Tyner vibe in the rhythm section. Here's that track:

A Jazz Violinist Who Sings Of Black History

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"Motherless Child," from John Blake Jr., Motherless Child (Artists Recording Collective). John Blake Jr., violin/arrangement; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; Afro Blue dir. Connaitre Miller, voices. To be released Mar. 2, 2010.

More Information: Artists Recording Collective

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Blake Jr. is a jazz violinist based in Philadelphia (and the father of the killing younger drummer Johnathan Blake, who appears on this record). For this upcoming album, he enlisted his regular quartet, plus the Afro Blue ensemble and a few guests, for arrangements of African American spirituals. He's not the first to have done something like this, of course, but when it works, it works. And a little digging around revealed that there's more to this project than just music:

This is the trailer to A Note Of Hope, a documentary film currently being made about John Blake Jr. and co. In addition to arranging the spirituals heard on Motherless Child, Blake brought a version of his ensemble to Africa last summer with a ministry which supports orphans whose parents died of HIV/AIDS. The movie will juxtapose the history of the African American spiritual with the AIDS orphans crisis.

Anyway, I only got to thinking about all this because a curious press release appeared in my RSS reader this morning. Blake Jr. frequently lectures on spirituals and black music history, so it would make sense that he's also helped write a new jazz record inspired by Frederick Douglass. Gah. I wonder how such a prolific artist stayed off my radar when he was making so much music in plain sight.